Found Footage: Elliot Williams Talks Nexus Technologies

Back at the 2017 Superconference, Hackaday Managing Editor Elliot Williams started his talk about the so-called “Internet of Things” by explaining the only part he doesn’t like about the idea is the Internet… and the things. It’s a statement that most of us would still agree with today. If anything, the situation has gotten worse in the intervening years. Commercial smart gadgets are now cheaper and more plentiful than they’ve ever been, but it seems like precious little has been done to improve their inherent privacy and security issues.

But his talk doesn’t serve to bash the companies producing these devices or even the services that ultimately folded and left their customers with neigh useless gadgets. That’s not his style. The central theme of Nexus Technologies: Or How I Learned to Love WiFi” is that a smart home can be wonderful thing, assuming it works the way you want it to. Elliot argues that between low-cost modular hardware and open source software, the average hacker has everything they need to build their own self-contained home automation ecosystem. One that’s not only cheaper than what they’re selling at the Big Box electronics store, but also doesn’t invite any of the corporate giants to the party.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. A decade ago it would have been all but impossible, and five years ago it would have been too expensive to be practical. As Elliot details his journey towards a truly personal smart home, he explains the advances in hardware and software that have made it not just possible on the DIY level, but approachable. The real takeaway is that once more people realize how cheap and easy it is to roll your own smart home gadgets, they may end up more than willing to kick Big Brother to the curb and do IoT on their own terms.

This previously unpublished recording somehow slipped between the cracks of the editing room floor but upon recent discovery, it’s still just as relevant today. Take a look at Elliot’s view on Nexus Technologies, then join us after the break for a deeper dive. Make sure to subscribe to Hackaday’s YouTube channel to get in on the 2019 Hackaday Superconference live stream starting Saturday, November 16th.

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A Low-Power Solution To Streamlining Sensor Data For IoT

For home use IoT systems, getting sensor data from tons of physical locations centralized to a single Raspberry Pi can be a difficult job, especially when considering the power consumption that’s necessary for doing it all over WiFi. When you’re using an ESP8266, for instance, swapping out batteries and accounting for connectivity issues can be a major hassle for a long-term solution. The NoCAN platform, created by [Alain Pannetrat], solves this problem using a wired approach that improves the use of the CAN bus.

Since SPI and I2C only work for short distances, approaches like RS-485 and CAN bus are a better bet for this type of setup. For systems with one centralized point, RS-485 works best – thus, the CAN bus is the better approach when you’re considering using multiple masters in a single environment.

CAN devices typically need a static address, so messaging involves sending data to the known address of the destination device. With NoCAN, a dynamic address assignment scheme allows nodes to request an address from a node manager on boot-up (similar to DHCP). A command line application also allows users to send and receive message from nodes using a pub/sub implementation – a device sends messages to a channel, and every device subscribed to the channel receives the message.

The hardware for the NoCAN platform consists of a Raspberry Pi with a “PiMaster” HAT and an Arduino-compatible CANZERO board. The PiMaster HAT uses an STM32F042 ARM Cortex M0 MCU, acting as an interface between the Pi and the CAN bus as well as preventing over-current events with a software-controlled smart switch. The CANZERO is based on the the SAMD21G18 ARM Cortex M0+ running at 48MHz, similar to the Arduino MKR Zero, with CAN bus networking using the STM32F042 ARM Cortex M0. The double MCU design allows the secondary MCU to reset the primary if it gets stuck due to a programming error, with the messages sent over the CAN bus.

To join the network together, a four-wire cable daisy-chains the nodes in the bus network, providing connectivity for up to 1000 feet. Either 12V or 24V DC power runs through the network, stepping down to 5V or 3.3V at each node. The approach is similar to PoE (power over Ethernet), although it is slower and lower in cost. Overall, it seems like a good solution for environments where wireless connectivity simply doesn’t cut it.

Teardown: Quirky Egg Minder

Many of the biggest stars are hesitant to do sequels, believing that the magic captured the first time around is hard to reproduce in subsequent productions. As I’m known (at least around the former closet that now serves as my home office) as the “Meryl Streep of Teardowns”, I try to follow her example when it comes to repeat performances. But if they could get her to come back for another Mamma Mia film, I suppose I can take a look at a second Quirky product.

An elderly egg calls to inquire about euthanasia services.

This time around we’ll be looking at the Quirky Egg Minder, a smart device advertised as being able to tell you when your eggs are getting old. Apparently, this is a problem some people have. A problem that of course is best solved via the Internet of Things, because who wouldn’t pay $80 USD for a battery-powered WiFi device that lives in their refrigerator and communicates vital egg statistics to an online service?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is “most people”. The Egg Minder, like most of its Quirky peers, quickly became a seemingly permanent fixture of retailer’s clearance shelves. This particular unit, which I was able to pick up new from Amazon, only cost me $9.99. This is still more than I would have paid under normal circumstances, but such sacrifices are part and parcel with making sure the readers of Hackaday get their regular dose of unusual gadgetry.

You may recall that our last Quirky device, the “Refuel” propane tank monitor, ended up being a fantastically engineered and built piece of hardware. The actual utility of the product was far from certain, but nobody could deny that the money had been spent in all the right places.

What will the internals of the Egg Minder reveal? Will it have the same level of glorious over-engineering that took us by surprise with the Refuel? Will that zest for form over function ultimately become the legacy of these Quirky devices, or was it just a fluke? Let’s crack this egg and find out.

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The Trials And Tribulations Of Building An IOT Garage Door Opener

Garage doors can be frustrating things, being a chore to open manually and all. Many people opt to install a motorized opener, but for some, even this isn’t enough. Hooking up a garage door to the Internet of Things has long been a popular project, and [Simon Ludborzs] decided to give it a shot. Naturally, there were some obstacles to be overcome along the way.

[Simon]’s build is relatively straight down the lines, using an ESP-12 as the brains of the operation, which connects to the internet over WiFi. However, robustness was a major goal of the project, and being reliant on shaky cloud-based services wouldn’t do. This opener is set up to work independently of an internet connection, too. There’s a nifty control panel with glowing buttons to operate the opener, in addition to the webpage served up on the network.

During the development, [Simon] ran into several roadblocks. A set of roller door motors were inadvertently killed, and there were issues in getting the web interface working as expected. None of these were showstoppers, though, and with a little work and some new parts, everything came together in the end. The project was then given a proper commercial-grade case, sourced from AliBaba. This is a great step to take for a project expected to hold up to daily use for years on end. He also took the time to document his tips for easier ESP8266 development, which may prove useful to those just getting started with the platform.

Garage door openers remain a common theme around here, but every project has its own story to tell. If you’ve developed a particularly unique solution to your garage access problems, you know who to call.

WOPR: Security Loses Some Of Its Obscurity

As we’ve seen time and time again, the word “hacker” takes on a different meaning depending on who you’re talking to. If you ask the type of person who reads this fine digital publication, they’ll probably tell you that a hacker is somebody who likes to learn how things work and who has a penchant for finding creative solutions to problems. But if you ask the average passerby on the street to describe a hacker, they might imagine somebody wearing a balaclava and pounding away at their laptop in a dimly lit abandoned warehouse. Thanks, Hollywood.

The “Hollywood Hacker” Playset

Naturally, we don’t prescribe to the idea of hackers being digital villains hell-bent on stealing your identity, but we’ll admit that there’s something of rift between what we call hacking versus what happens in the information security realm. If you see mention of Red Teams and Blue Teams on Hackaday, it’s more likely to be in reference to somebody emulating Pokemon on the ESP32 than anything to do with penetration testing. We’re not entirely sure where this fragmentation of the hacking community came from, but it’s definitely pervasive.

In an attempt bridge the gap, the recent WOPR Summit brought together talks and presentations from all sections of the larger hacking world. The goal of the event was to show that the different facets of the community have far more in common than they might realize, and featured a number of talks that truly blurred the lines. The oscilloscope toting crew learned a bit about the covert applications of their gadgets, and the high-level security minded individuals got a good look at how the silicon sausage gets made.

Two of these talks which should particularly resonate with the Hackaday crowd were Charles Sgrillo’s An Introduction to IoT Penetration Testing and Ham Hacks: Breaking into Software Defined Radio by Kelly Albrink. These two presentations dealt with the security implications of many of the technologies we see here at Hackaday on what seems like a daily basis: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Software Defined Radio (SDR), home automation, embedded Linux firmware, etc. Unfortunately, the talks were not recorded for the inaugural WOPR Summit, but both presenters were kind of enough to provide their slides for reference.

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Talking Telegram With The ESP8266

At this point it’s something of a given that a member of the ESP8266 family is likely your best bet if you want to cobble together a small Internet-connected gadget. Costing as little as $3 USD, this well documented all-in-one solution really can’t be beat. But of course, the hardware is only one half of the equation. Deciding how to handle the software side of your homebrew Internet of Things device is another story entirely.

A simple Telegram ESP8266 switch

It would be fair to say that there’s no clear-cut “right” way to approach the software, and it really depends on the needs or limitations of your particular project. For example [Brian Lough] finds that building Telegram support into his ESP8266 allows him to accomplish his goals with the minimum amount of fuss while at the same time using an environment he’s already comfortable with. He recently wrote in to share one of his Telegram projects with us, and in the video after the break, takes the time to explain some of the things he likes best about controlling his hardware through the encrypted chat platform.

But you don’t have to take his word for it, you can try it yourself. Thanks to the software library that [Brian] has developed to connect his projects to Telegram, the aptly named “Universal Telegram Bot Library”, anyone can easily follow in his footsteps. Adding his Telegram library to your next ESP8266 project is as easy as selecting it in the Arduino IDE. From there the video explains the process for getting a bot ID from Telegram, and ultimately how you use it to receive messages from the service. What you do with those messages is entirely up to you.

According to [Brian], the main downside is that you are beholden to a web service to control your local devices; not ideal if the Internet goes down or you would rather your little hacker projects not talk to the big scary Internet in the first place. If you’d rather keep all your smart things talking within the confines of your own network, perhaps your next project could be setting up a private MQTT server.

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Digital License Plates Are Here, But Do We Need Them?

It’s a story as old as time: you need to swap between your custom license plates, but you can’t find a screwdriver and you’re already running late for a big meeting at the Business Factory. You called AAA to see if they could come out and do it for you, but as luck would have it something must be wrong with your phone because the line was disconnected as soon as you explained the situation. As if life in the First World couldn’t get any more difficult.

Luckily, a company called Reviver Auto has come up with a thoroughly modern solution to this age old problem. Assuming you live in Arizona, California, and Michigan and are willing to pay $800 USD (plus a small monthly service fee), you can join the Rplate revolution! Less a license plate and more of a “cool-looking, multi-functional digital display and connected vehicle platform”, the Rplate will ensure you never again find yourself stuck on the side of the road with an unfashionable license plate.

What’s that? You’ve had the same license plate for years, possibly decades, and have never given it much thought? Well, in that case the Rplate might be sort of a tough sell. Did we mention that someday you might be able to display the current weather on it while your car is parked? Of course, if you can see the license plate you’re already outside, so…

This all might sound like an out of season April Fool’s joke, but as far as I can tell from reading the Reviver Auto site and watching their promotional videos, this is essentially the value proposition of their line of Rplate digital license plates. There are some admittedly interesting potential extensions of the technology if they can convince other companies and systems to plug into their ecosystem, but given the cost of the Rplate and the few states in which it’s currently legal to use, that seems far from a given at this point.

But of course we’re fans of weird and wonderful technology here at Hackaday, so we should give this device a fair shake. On the surface it might seem to be a solution looking for a problem, but that’s often said of technology ahead of its time. So what exactly is the Rplate, how does it work, and where does it go from here?

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